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JOBS PICTURE ISN'T CLEAR

Is U.S. unemployment up or down? Federal figures for January aren't in agreement.

The job picture got a little worse in January. Or maybe it got a little better.

The federal government delivered a mixed report on employment Friday, simultaneously claiming the country lost 17,000 jobs and unemployment fell to 4.9 percent from 5 percent.

The conflicting results were from different surveys. The Labor Department asks businesses about their payrolls for the jobs report and talks to consumers for the unemployment report. In both cases, the January numbers were so close to those for December that the government labeled them "essentially unchanged."

Economists say it's not unusual for the job and unemployment numbers to diverge, but either way you read them, the economy has slowed over the past few months.

While the jobs report is considered the more accurate of the two, it is less accurate at turning points in the economy, said Scott Brown, chief economist for Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg. And it is frequently revised. In fact, December's job gain, originally reported as a paltry 18,000, was revised to 82,000.

He said January's reported job loss, the first in more than four years, isn't alarming by itself, but it is a concern as part of a bigger pattern.

"You never want to put too much weight on any one particular month; you look at the underlying trend," Brown said. "We need to see job gains of 120,000 to 130,000 per month to be consistent with growth in the working-age population. We're clearly below that, which means the unemployment rate has to be gradually moving higher."

In the second half of last year, only one month saw the creation of more than 100,000 jobs. The January report showed continuing losses in construction and manufacturing, but growth in health care and food service. The construction industry has lost 284,000 jobs since its peak in September 2006.

Some economists saw a silver lining in Friday's report.

"What economic conditions are telling us is that there's some slowdown, but it's not massive and it's not broad-based," said Chip Norton, managing director of economic analysis and fixed income for Lydian Trust Co. in Palm Beach

Florida's unemployment rate was 4.7 percent in December, still below the national average. January numbers won't be available until March 7, when revised numbers for 2006 and 2007 also will be released.

Helen Huntley can be reached at hhuntley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8230.

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